We all know that with the thrill of the World Cup comes an astonishing array of national, racial, and cultural stereotypes. While we are not yet through the opening round of matches, we are taking a look for posterity’s sake at some of these, seeing how they’ve held up (or not) so far and what might become of them.
1. The Germans are cold and efficient (but not artful) football machines and they always win in the end
If their opening game against the Socceroos is any indication, than this myth is probably not going to last much longer. It has been a while since they have won the World Cup (1990; they won the Euro in 1996). Their last winning team had many vestiges of this stereotypical view of them, summarized by their ’96 European Championship-winning team.
However, by 2010 things have drastically changed, and the team also reflects societal changes. Once a homogeneous team of ethnic Germans, the team now has a myriad of players from different backgrounds: Polish, Bosnian, Tunisian, Ghanaian, Turkish, Nigerian, Spanish. Not only that, but these players are crucial members of the team who are redefining the German style of play, and influencing their fellow teammates to shift the national team style to a fast-paced, creative, and powerful one. The demolition of Australia, while aided by an unjust red card, showed that the Germans are no longer strangers to jogo bonito, and judging from their two major finals in the past 8 years, one can conclude that these Teutons are not afraid to lose.
2. African teams are very athletic yet extremely disorganized and chaotic
One of the favorite stereotypes of pundits and neutral observers alike. Perhaps rooted in a disdain for postcolonial upheaval, and regarding the subsequent political turmoil in ex-colonies as the fault of the colonized rather than the colonizer, this is one we hear on the broadcasts year after year. Even the Univisión commentators can’t stop going on about how “athletic” and physical the Nigerians or the Ghanaians are; no matter how different those teams are (and they could not be much more different), one could easily interchange the commentators’ descriptions of them.
Quite to the contrary of what the commentary tells us, a team like Ghana’s goes sharply against the myth; against Serbia–a very professional and seasoned team in and of itself–they proved to be more than equal. Organized to the point of being hermetic defensively, their biggest defect was a lack of opportunities, finishing, and creation on attack. Normally one would reserve such a critique as typical of the old dogs (we think of Italy, for example). Nonetheless, their focus and determination defeated any old associations and they ended up the wily winners thanks to their quality.
While Nigeria did itself few favors in terms of the myth, there are other African teams out there that might. Ivory Coast is a fascinating team that exhudes quality, and Cameroon has a couple of world class players to add to a bunch of seasoned pros playing all over Europe.
3. Brazilian joy and jogo bonito
Another of the favorite stereotypes, not helped by the many Brazilians I’ve met who insist their nation is one of sea and samba, dancing and prancing, and overall beauty and happiness. While this was hard to swallow when I was down there (in the middle of the big São Paulo gang wars of 2006), I can understand to some extent this sort of national identity creation. However, after having experienced the most miserably boring World Cup final in 1994, I find it hard to see this in the game of the selecçao.
As a youngster back then, all of the expectation of my first (intently followed) final was burst (or better: slowly impaled) by 120 scoreless minutes of football. Throughout the tournament, the Brazilian style was one of tight control and efficiency, not artfully explosive play or creativity. And this, having on their side one of the best forward lines ever in the clever Bebeto and the inimitable Romario, who had the touch of an angel in the penalty box; never did the devastation of a goal seem so beautiful as when it was put into the goal by the diminutive Cupid of football.
2002 did some justice to the stereotype, in a team featuring the magician Rivaldo, a budding Ronaldinho, a resurgent Ronaldo, and rampaging fullbacks Roberto Carlos and Cafu. However, teams such as their ’98 and ’06 team showed a more repetitive current in their game, one that reflects the reality that most of their national teams are based in Europe, in stark contrast to the days of Pelé, Garrincha, and company. Solid, committed, and talented professionals, who know what the task at hand entails, and how to get it done.
Perhaps no player epitomizes this globalized work ethic than the industrious Dunga, himself an immigrant journeyman in his playing days, who made his mark by taking no prisoners, and implementing his order upon the field. Alongside holding midfielders Mazinho and Mauro Silva, his ’94 team sapped all of the life out of opponents, and the Brazilians needed few opportunities thanks to their deadly finishers.
The 2010 team, with Dunga as coach, represents this new identity of the Brazilian game. Omitting such creative players such as Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato, the message was clear that he will take dedication over magic any day. Expect to see a style repeat of ’94, though we would love to be proven wrong.